NEW YORK, NY, Nov. 6, 2017 – President Donald Trump’s blocking of people on Twitter who criticize him violates their constitutional right to receive government messages transmitted through social media and participate in the forums created by them, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) told a court today.
Public agencies and officials, from city mayors and county sheriff offices to U.S. Secretaries of State and members of Congress, routinely use social media to communicate opinions, official positions, services, and important public safety and policy messages. Twitter has become a vital communications tool for government, allowing local and federal officials to transmit information when natural disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires strike, hold online town halls, and answer citizens’ questions about programs.
President Trump’s frequent use of Twitter to communicate policy decisions, air opinions on local and global events and leaders, and broadcast calls for congressional action has become a hallmark of his administration. In July, the Knight First Amendment Institute filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York alleging the president and his communications team violated the First Amendment by blocking seven people from the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account because they criticized the president or his policies. The seven individuals include a university professor, a surgeon, a comedy writer, a community organizer, an author, a legal analyst, and a police officer.
In a brief filed today siding with the plaintiffs, EFF maintains that President Trump’s use of his Twitter account is akin to past presidents’ adoption of new communication technologies to engage directly with the public. President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered “fireside chats” with Americans over the radio, while presidential debates began being televised in the 1960s. It would be impermissible for a president to block certain individuals from receiving their messages, whether delivered by bullhorn, radio, or television. It should be the same for communications delivered by Twitter.
On the local level, mayors use their Twitter feeds to direct residents to emergency services during storms and hurricanes, while fire chiefs use their feeds to transmit evacuation orders and emergency contact information. Citizens rely heavily on these channels for authoritative and reliable information in times of public safety crisis. It’s unthinkable, and unconstitutional, that certain people would be blocked from these messages because they sent a tweet criticizing the official or office maintaining the Twitter account.
“Governmental use of social media platforms to communicate to and with the public, and allow the public to communicate with each other, is pervasive. It is seen all across the country, at every level of government. It is now the rule of democratic engagement, not the exception,” said EFF Civil Liberties Director David Greene. “The First Amendment prohibits the exclusion of individuals from these forums based on their viewpoint. President Trump’s blocking of people on Twitter because he doesn’t like their views infringes on their right to receive public messages from government and participate in the democratic process.”
For information about the lawsuit: